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To Whom It May Concern:

Why can the smell of popped popcorn be smelled farther away than any other food? Is there a fact behind this question, or is it just a phenomenon?

-- JS, San Diego

Oh, there are facts hidden everywhere. The place is crawling with them. They're even in the smell of popcorn, along with a little hucksterism. For something to produce a smell, the odor molecules have to vaporize. The faster they are dispersed, the stronger the smell. And the warmer and moister the environment, the more the scent will linger. (Do air-freshener and pet-odor-killer sales peak in August? We'll get an elf on that question right away.) Given those facts, popcorn has a lot going for it smellwise. Corn pops when water in the kernel turns to steam and explodes the seed coat. So there's your sudden release of odorants in a hot, damp environment. Popcorn is a crowd-pleasing stinkfest.

But maybe you're thinking about popcorn scent in a movie theater or store. Long ago, chemists devised a fake popcorn odor that needs only heat to release it. Add a fan and a ventilation system and you have eager buyers. Chemists can fake pretty much any smell there is, and then somebody uses it to sell us stuff. It's all very sinister. Examples: a scratch-and-sniff gunpowder ad; scented slot machines in Vegas that made people stay longer and spend more; male-sweat-scented bills from collection agencies (increased on-time payments 17 percent); fake new-car smell in a bank's car-loan brochures; and old-fashioned-home-cookin' scent in anything microwavable. The topper might be the Chicago scent-development lab that tested smells to see which got men hottest. Eau de JLo? No! Cinnamon buns, by a landslide. Pure erotica.

And the truth is now out about everybody's favorite, that new-car smell. The real stuff is the scent of volatile chemicals wafting from fresh plastics: toluene, styrene, ethylene glycol butyl esters, benzene, acetone…. A smell to close a sale by. We recommend you drive your new car for the first 1000 miles with the AC on and the doors open.

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